NHL state of union: Salary cap expected to continue ‘robust growth,’ 4 Nations, LTIR, expansion, more

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SUNRISE, Fla. — With the NHL’s salary-cap ceiling finally on the move again following years of COVID-19-related stagnation, commissioner Gary Bettman thinks a jump like the one we’ll see next season will become the new norm.

The league announced Saturday night that the 2024-25 cap ceiling will be set at $88 million — an increase of $4.5 million from this past season, making it the largest year-to-year jump in a decade.

That’s a reflection of the fact that players have repaid all remaining debts to owners stemming from the pandemic and a sign that revenues were strong in a season in which Bettman said the league set a new record for total attendance.

He also believes it’s a sign of what’s to come.

“I predict it will continue to go up,” Bettman said Saturday before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “Obviously, the number of years we had with flat and modest increases was necessary to recapture how much was overpaid and how much the escrow built up during COVID.

“I believe we’re going to continue to see robust growth in the cap.”

The $88 million figure was actually a hair more than originally expected. The 2020 memorandum of understanding between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association called for an increase of 5 percent in this situation, which would have resulted in an $87.7 million ceiling. But the sides decided they’d be able to set it a little higher because of where the revenues landed.

That was welcome news on both sides.

“Every bit above what this cap was proposed to do is a good raise for the players,” NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh told The Athletic. “It’s been a good year for hockey.”

“It’s great to see,” Bettman said. “I know the general managers and the teams are excited to have more flexibility, and it means that the revenues are as robust as we’ve been telling you all along.”

If the NHL continues with 5 percent raises the next two seasons, the salary cap could hit $97 million before the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in September 2026.

4 Nations details

Details of next February’s 4 Nations Face-Off continue to come together, with the NHL and NHLPA officially announcing Saturday that the tournament will be played at the Bell Centre in Montreal and TD Garden in Boston.

“Two iconic cities,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “We thought it was important to have some exposure in Canada.”

The event will be held instead of an All-Star Game next season in a window from Feb. 12 to 20.

The four participating countries — the United States, Canada, Sweden and Finland — will each play twice in Montreal before moving to Boston for their final round-robin game. After that, the two top teams will play for the championship at TD Garden on Feb. 20.

While there have been some complaints about countries being left out of the exhibition, including from Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak after Czechia won the IIHF World Hockey Championship last month, Bettman said there were two factors that prevented it. The length of the tournament required it to have a limited field, and the other countries didn’t have enough NHL players.

“We wanted this to be all NHL players, and these four countries fit the bill better than any of the others,” he said.

The first six players from each roster will be unveiled on June 28.

Expansion on hold for now …

Expansion rumblings out of Atlanta and Houston continue to swirl — not to mention a possible return to Arizona — but Bettman said there is no green light for the league’s next expansion process.

“There’s nothing new to update in that regard,” he said. “We continue to deal with expressions of interest. We’re not going to, at least at this point, unveil a formal expansion process. And we are gratified by the fact at least half a dozen places continue to have interest in us.”

Normally the league would announce the commencement of an expansion process at the annual two-day Board of Governors meeting in December. So that would be the next window on the calendar to watch.

“I want to continue to have discussions with Gary about that — about how they expand, where they expand,” Walsh said. “I think it’s important.”

Expansion is coming, it’s just a matter of when.

The Athletic did ask Walsh if he’s ever asked Bettman about the idea of a second NHL team in Toronto.

“No, I never asked him that one, but a lot of people in Toronto have asked me about it,” Walsh said with a laugh.

If the NHLPA wants to grow hockey-related revenue, a second team in Toronto would be a revenue monster. But the league doesn’t want to have that conversation. It never has.

LTIR rule changes?

Daly said he has gotten feedback from many (but not all) general managers on the idea of a potential change to the long-term-injured-reserve rules and having no salary cap in the playoffs.

Daly had asked the GMs on the executive committee in March to solicit opinions from other GMs on whether there was an appetite for change.

It sounds like there is.

“Yes, I’ve gotten some feedback,” Daly said. “I haven’t gotten all the feedback. Again, I think the results came back what I kind of anticipated they might. I think the majority of the people I’ve heard from would suggest in a perfect world we should try to address it in some way differently than we’re addressing it.

“None of them thought it was (a) major competitive issue in the short term. And it’s something ultimately we’re going to have to negotiate with the Players’ Association. So, whether that can happen with two years left on the collective bargaining agreement, I’m not making any promises. Whether it’s going to be something we address in a broader collective bargaining negotiation? Quite possibly.”

That’s as strong a public statement as Daly has made on this subject to date. It does sound like changes to the LTIR rules are coming eventually. But if you read between the lines, Daly is also saying it’s likely going to wait until the next CBA in two years.

Asked about it Saturday, Walsh didn’t tip his hand on where the players stand on that issue.

“Bill followed up with that saying he’s still reviewing it,” Walsh said. “We’ll wait and see what happens.”

London 2018 court case

The Athletic asked Daly if the league had any advice or counsel for teams with players charged in the 2018 London, Ontario, sexual assault case, as far as whether to tender qualifying offers by June 30 to retain their rights.

Carter Hart (Philadelphia), Michael McLeod (New Jersey), Dillon Dube (Calgary) and Cal Foote (New Jersey) are pending restricted free agents July 1. They would become unrestricted free agents if their respective NHL clubs decide not to qualify them.

“I’ve gotten a couple of inquiries from clubs,” Daly said. “As of right now, the status quo would be that whatever rights the CBA set forth for clubs and players will adhere. We’ve talked generally with the Players’ Association about the possibility of revisiting that on some basis but have no commitment with regard to that. So it’s possible that clubs will have the decision to (qualify) or not as of the end of this month.”

So as it currently stands, it’s up to the individual clubs.

“Yes,” Bettman said.

Walsh didn’t have much to add on that.

“It’s very early conversations. Bill said it. Nothing really formalized there,” Walsh said.

Quenneville and Bowman eligibility

The NHL is still not willing to allow Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman to pursue a job with a team, according to Bettman, as both the former Chicago Blackhawks head coach and general manager remain ineligible after failing to react responsibly in connection with the Kyle Beach sexual assault case.

In October 2021, Bowman resigned as Blackhawks GM and Quenneville resigned from his job as Florida Panthers head coach after an investigative report was released detailing how Blackhawks’ senior staffers ignored allegations of a coach sexually assaulting Beach during the team’s 2010 Stanley Cup run.

Neither has worked in the league since.

“Currently, they’re not eligible,” Bettman said. “They have both reached out seeking an opportunity to come back, and that’s something that I have to consider.”

Quenneville and Bowman were invited to address the league’s coaches and GMs about what they’ve learned from the experience last September.

(Photo of Gary Bettman: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

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